New NCES study offers far less dire view of teacher attrition

For years, a prevalent study has led researchers to believe that teacher attrition is at abysmal levels, with estimates of up to 40 to 50 percent of teachers leaving the profession within their first five years. The estimate came from work by education researcher Richard Ingersoll, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
However, federal data recently released by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows that new teachers are far less likely to leave the profession than previously reported.
The NCES’s Beginning Teacher Longitudinal Study (BTLS) had a research-based approach, and sought to learn pertinent data surrounding the first five years of a teacher’s career. The study tracked public school teachers who began teaching in 2007‒08 school year. Among this group, 10 percent did not teach in 2008‒09, 12 percent did not teach in 2009‒10, 15 percent did not teach in 2010‒11, and 17 percent did not teach in 2011‒12.

NCES’ conclusion that just 17 percent of all teachers leave the profession in the first five years is certainly at odds with Ingersoll’s research. Ingersoll offers several explanations for the differing conclusions, including that his earlier conclusion was a “crude approximation” because no one had tracked a cohort of new teachers over time to see how long they remained in the classroom. The NCES study did that.
Ingersoll also believes the new numbers may be lower because of differences in the studies. His study focused on public and private school teachers and followed teachers through five full years of teaching. The NCES study concludes after the fourth year of teaching.
Other factors may have influenced teachers’ decisions to remain in the classroom. For example, the NCES study began tracking teachers as the economy went into a recession, which may have caused more teachers to remain in their jobs. Teacher working conditions may also have improved since 2001, when Ingersoll published his initial study. More recent education reforms might also have contributed to higher teacher retention. “I certainly would hope that the reason the rates were lower is because so many of these reforms have hit pay dirt and we’re improving things. But the truth is, we do not know that,” Ingersoll said in an interview with The Washington Post.
What makes the study by NCES so beneficial in comparison to Ingersoll’s study is that the data centered on why teachers are leaving the profession. Key findings give clues that may help administrators positively impact teacher retention.

Salary matters 

Teachers with higher starting salaries were more likely to continue teaching than their peers at the bottom of the pay scale. For example, 97 percent of teachers with a starting salary of $40,000 or more continued, whereas only 87 percent of those with a starting salary below $40,000 returned the next year. This trend continued through the 2011‒12 school year, where 89 percent of beginning teacher above $40,000 continued compared to 80 percent continuing for those making less than $40,000.

Mentors make a difference

The percentage of beginning teachers who continued in the profession was larger among those who were assigned a mentor during their first year. In 2008‒09, 92 percent of those assigned a mentor continued on, compared to 89 percent of those without a mentor. This trend continued through the 2011‒12 school year with 86 percent of those with a mentor returning compared to 71 percent of those without.
A survey released in April 2014 by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and the American Institutes for Research support these findings. The report indicates that 55 percent of new teachers listed “access to a mentor” as having the largest impact on developing their effectiveness as a teacher.

Leaving involuntarily

The proportion of teachers who leave the classroom involuntarily had an impact on the results. Twenty-seven percent of beginning teachers in 2008‒09 did not return the next school year for involuntary reasons, such as their contract not being renewed. 

Other details

  • Teachers who spend their first year in high-poverty schools are slightly more likely to leave.
  • A teacher’s educational attainment didn’t have much influence on his or her decision to stay or go. Teachers with master’s degrees were slightly more likely to remain after three years.
  • Teachers coming through alternative certification programs were slightly more likely to leave.
  • Men drop out of the profession faster than women.
  • Teachers who start their careers after the age of 30 are more likely to leave.
  • Through five years, school districts are slightly more likely to retain white teachers.